Archibald Sillars Hamilton was what he called a ‘practical’ phrenologist.
It’s a job that doesn’t exist anymore given that phrenology is now widely debunked.
But back early last century phrenology was the latest craze and Hamilton toured the country giving talks and lectures.
The examination of the bumps and ridges of someone’s head to predict their personality or the possibility of criminal behaviour now seems laughable, but Hamilton held public events where he did just that.
Hamilton was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, the son of Edward Hamilton and Agnes Hamilton (nee Sillars) who was herself a phrenologist, Scottish reformer and champion for women’s rights to an education.
In 1854 Hamilton left for Australia where he was to begin a career as a phrenologist.
He often went to executions and in 1860 made death masks of two men hanged for rape and murder at the Maitland Gaol in New South Wales.
It wasn’t enough for him though and he offered money if he was allowed to dig up the bodies and remove their heads.
He ended up in court and defended himself “just as a geologist needs rocks, a phrenologist needs heads".
He was acquitted by the jury.
It was in New Zealand he began giving talks and lecturing, attracting plenty to listen to him talk about bumps on people’s heads, the shape of their jaws and whether they had protruding brow ridges. He called himself Professor Hamilton.
He took private customers charging them for a description of their character with advice (3 shillings, 6 pence), a written sketch of character (5 shillings), or a detailed character reading with a phrenological chart (10 shillings).
In 1866 Richard Burgess, Thomas Kelly and William Levy were hanged in Nelson. The Burgess gang as they were called had embarked on a crimewave, terrifying citizens and ultimately murdering several people.
While being held in prison Hamilton spoke to the men, Burgess in particular was keen to have a death mask made of himself, even asking that it be done before he was hanged in case his face was distorted after death.
Hamilton attended the executions then made the other two death masks.
The masks are in the collection of the Nelson Provincial Museum.
Indeed Hamilton gave numerous talks especially about Kelly who he said had a small organ of conscientiousness with his brain being of medium size, rendering him expert in all the arts of deception, totally unreliable and thoroughly obsessed by self.
He also said Kelly’s organs of social sympathy were blighted.
But it was another Kelly that Hamilton became famous for.
In 1880 notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly was hanged at the Old Melbourne Gaol. While authorities denied it for many years, Kelly was dissected and Hamilton was supposedly given his head.
"There is not one head in a thousand of the criminal type so small in caution as his, and there are few heads among the worst which would risk so much for the love of power," Hamilton said.
A death mask was also made of him - on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.
When Hamilton died in 1884 his collection of 55 human skulls was shipped to the National Museum of Victoria which still has them.
Hamilton is buried in the Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney.
Pic by Ray Smithers
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